Lights, Camera, Scalpel: Saying Goodbye to a Lifetime of Work

The letter arrived in the afternoon. It said her last day of work was on Thursday the week after. She sat looking at the letter for some time. Then she picked up her phone and dialled my number. I was at work.

She read the letter out to me slowly – pausing after every few words – as if she were swallowing something down her parched throat. She had been expecting it. The letter thanked her for her contributions and announced her retirement date.

Despite expecting it, the letter had managed to jolt her somehow.

“I won’t be going to the hospital anymore,” she said. “What will I do now?”

I could hear the emptiness in her voice. My mother, a surgeon, was about to retire from full-time work a day before her 70th birthday.

For the second time.

“I know I should not be feeling sad,” she said. “This is the second time after all.”

I did not know what to say. My mind went back to the days following her first retirement.

The first round

When she first retired from a government hospital at 60, I had imagined she would stay home and spend lazy days with friends and family. When I called her on the first morning of her ‘retired’ life, expecting to have a leisurely chat, she sounded rushed.

“What are you doing, mom?” I asked.

“I am on my way to submit a job application,” she said.

I was shocked.

Trying to hide my surprise, I quickly wished her luck and hung up.

It took some time to accept that she was looking for a job on the first day after her retirement. It did not fit with the romantic notions of retirement I had in mind. But I also knew that after my father’s passing, she ensured she kept busy.

Within a couple of days, she got the job offer and started work after a short break.

My girlhood days

When I was a child, I resented my mother’s commitment to her work. I wanted her to relax because I often saw her running from one place to another. From home to hospital. Hospital to home. And, at home, from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom and back again.

I wanted her to stand still. I wished I had a pause button.

In those days, I used to be jealous of friends whose mothers stayed at home. I envied the little things. For example, I did not like the cardigans they wore in winter which their mothers had knitted for them. I also had many cardigans – but they were all bought from a store.

I was jealous of the food they got in their lunch boxes. I imagined their mothers making them elaborate dishes at home. Our cook prepared most meals for us at home, especially on weekdays.

Also read: Bones, Books and Parental Expectations: The Day the Scalpel Lost to the Pen

Of course, my mother made mutton curry on Sundays. But I did not have school on Sundays. So, I could not show it to my friends.

I would even get angry when my mother had to attend to her patients on holidays. I would get annoyed at women who gave birth on weekends. I particularly did not like the ones who gave birth during my favourite festivals, especially Diwali and Christmas. I wished my mom would stay at home with us during those special days. But the phone would always ring at the wrong time and take her away from home.

From me.

Dark humour and trench warfare

As I got older, I started seeing things differently. I started appreciating all that she did for her patients. And for us. I did not even mind the attention she showered on her ‘PG students’, the medical school students who were specialising in her field – obstetrics and gynaecology.

In fact, I found a role model in my mother.

It is easy to find people who choose to either focus completely on their careers or their families. I respect their choices. But I always searched for role models who strived to balance multiple aspects of their lives. My mother is one such person.

Of course, the balance my mother maintains between her professional and personal life is far from perfect. Her world has always been messy, chaotic and rushed. But her everyday struggles make her more endearing and human to me. I also love her dark sense of humour. Her acerbic comments at life’s tricky moments make me laugh.

As years passed by, we became close friends. I could confide in her about most things. She never judged me. Instead, she stood by me through the ups and downs of life. She even stood next to me each time I lay on an operating table. I thought she would wait outside the OT. But she was used to trench warfare.

I wondered how I could reciprocate all that she had done for me. I wanted to help her deal with her retirement. I thought of all the things I could say. May be, I could tell her that life begins after retirement. But she is not the kind to fall for such cheesy lines.

So, I decided to give what seemed like the most practical advice.

The grand farewell

“You could apply for an extension,” I said one evening. “In my field, people never truly retire.”

I told her how most people in academics continue working long after their official retirement. They keep writing books and articles. They continue mentoring students and junior faculty. Some of them even get to keep their offices.

She listened to all my suggestions. But she seemed to have made up her mind.

“No, I don’t want to run anymore,” she said. “My knees hurt a lot even when I walk. I am tired.”

I realised my mother had hit the stop button on her professional life. But I wasn’t ready to see her that way.

“Don’t be sad,” she told me. “I am grateful that I lived long enough for them to give me a grand farewell. Had I died during service, my farewell would have just involved placing two marigold garlands around my photograph.”

I stared at her. Then we laughed out loud. Together.

Smeeta Mishra teaches communication at the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, and strives to understand people’s words, silences, and everything in between. She tweets @smeetamishra.